Safety in Motorsport: The Monocoque

Without doubt the biggest safety advancement in Formula One over its 68-year history is the introduction of the monocoque.

The monocoque combines the driver’s survival cell, cockpit and forms an integral part of the chassis, with the engine and suspension among the compartments bolted to it.

Despite it not being common-place until the 1980s, the first example of this device appeared in the 1960s/ An aluminum alloy monocoque chassis was first used in the 1962 Lotus 25 Formula 1 entry, while McLaren was the first to use carbon-fibre-reinforced polymers to construct the monocoque of the 1981 McLaren MP4/1, this being the device and construction the world of motorsport is used to.

For safety reasons, no fuel, oil or water lines may pass through the cockpit and the driver must be able to get out within five seconds without having to remove anything except seatbelts and steering wheel (which he must be able to refit within another five seconds). F1 seat belts comprise a six-point harness, which the driver can undo in one movement. They have been compulsory since 1972.

The monocoque must be mainly constructed of carbon fibre, with up to 60 layers of it in places to absorb the energy of heavy impact accidents largely due to the high-speed nature of accidents in modern day Formula One. There is also a roll-over hoop behind the driver’s head, made of metal or composite materials while the survival cell’s flanks are protected by a 6mm layer of carbon and Zylon, a material used to make bullet-proof vests. The updates to this in recent years include the HALO device, designed to prevent foreign objects entering the cockpit and striking the drivers head.

The width of the cockpit must be 50 centimetres at the steering wheel and 30 centimetres at the pedals, the modern day monocoque often compared to driving in a bath tub as a result.

The driver’s seat is a single plastic cast and is tailored to each driver according to their exact shape and size to provide maximum protection. Since 1999, the seat has been detachable for it to be possible to remove the driver and seat as one after an accident, decreasing the chances of spinal injuries.

The system is now synonymous with the open-wheel racing community and has saved the lives of many a driver, famously Robert Kubica at the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix and Mark Webber at the 2010 European Grand Prix.

The monocoque started out life in Formula One as an aerodynamic device designed to increase efficiency, making the car narrower. The development of this system has led to Formula One and the wider racing community now being as safe as it ever has been, and the motorsport community continues to strive for improvements.

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